As we know, when students are experiencing difficulties in class or at school, this may indicate a problem at home. The problem can stem from some kind of stress or difficulty experienced by the parent or guardian or by the child or teen. (For some examples, see Understanding Parents and Guardians.) For example, students who engage in bullying behaviour can in some cases be acting out or expressing through aggression some kind of stress they are experiencing.
Problems experienced by students at school may or may not be related to abuse or neglect by parents or guardians. It is important not to make any assumptions or to leap to such a conclusion, while at the same time remaining alert to the possibility. In some cases, our contact with a parent or guardian can trigger or reinforce a suspicion that our student is being abused or neglected.
When teachers pick up on indicators that students may be suffering some kind of neglect, it is important to be mindful of the structural difficulties and realities experienced by many families.
A student in Grade 9 comes to school occasionally with no lunch. Her parents are newcomers to Canada who are each juggling 3 jobs. Her teacher approaches the student one day to ask about the situation. The teacher learns that the parents have assigned to their daughter the task of making lunch for herself every day. The student tells the teacher that a few times lately she just “didn’t get around to it.”
We do not need to be certain that a person under 16 years of age is experiencing abuse or neglect in order to make a report to a child welfare society. In Ontario, the organizations responsible for child welfare are known collectively as Children’s Aid Societies (CAS). Each and every person in Ontario is legally obliged to report not only our knowledge of abuse or neglect, but even our suspicions. We cannot delegate that responsibility to another party; each person must report the situation themselves. Teachers have a heightened responsibility in this regard because of our close and daily contact with students. If we are unsure as to whether a situation requires us to make a report, we can call them and consult with a worker, or ask our union representative for guidance.
If we become aware that a parent or guardian is using corporal punishment to discipline a student, we can approach this with an awareness that this method has many different meanings. Parents or guardians often lack the necessary support, information and skills to utilize other more positive approaches to discipline. Furthermore, many cultures have different views on this form of punishment and may lack information about the relevant laws in Canada. While the use of corporal punishment may not indicate intentional abuse of a young person, this will need to be reported to CAS, who is responsible for assessing the situation and the need for protection.
For more information about our duty to report and about possible signs of abuse and neglect in children and teens, visit the website of the Ministry of Children and Family Services.